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Motoring: Porsche still thrilling drivers with new 2009 line-up

Nauman Farooq | Interrobang | Sports | November 24th, 2008

Car companies usually throw parties for the launch of their new models, but Porsche has been throwing parties and events for the launch of their new gearbox.

Yes, there is more to the 2009 Porsche 911 than just its new transmission, but it is its new gearbox that everyone is talking about. What is so special about it you ask?

Well, it is the first time Porsche is offering a dual-clutch gearbox on a production car. Dual-clutch, or as Porsche calls it “Doppelkupplung” (a mouthful I know) or PDK in short, is a manual gearbox that changes gears using this cars electronic brain to give you faster, cleaner shifts.

How it works is, that its two clutches work in conjunction with each other. One clutch is given the task to engage first, third, fifth and seventh gear (yes, this car has seven speeds), and the second clutch works with second, fourth and sixth gear.

So as you accelerate, the transmission control unit can see you will be going up a gear, and it prepares its engagement even before you select the gear. When you do ask it for another gear, it engages it right away. This instantaneous gear change is very smooth, so it has none of that shift-shock you would get from a Ferrari F1 gearbox.

You must be wondering what if you wanted to downshift instead of up-shift, how would it know? Well that is the clever bit, because the transmission control unit can sense if you are decelerating and prepares for a lower gear. All this happens very fast, in fact 60 per cent faster than it did with the old Tiptronic gearbox. So while the transmission is working very hard, you don't have to.

Your left leg certainly doesn't have to do any work because it has no clutch pedal, in fact the only time you really need to use your left foot is to work the launch control feature, more of which I'll talk about later.

This gearbox can work like an automatic gearbox, when you just leave it in “D”, but when you want to take control, you can shift gears by either using the transmission level in “M” mode, or by using the pedals on either side of the steering wheel.

The technology sounds very good and impressive, but what is it like to actually use. To find out, Porsche invited a few journalists to the scenic Niagara-on-the-Lake, to allow us to see what this gearbox can actually do.

First on the agenda was a drive on local roads to see how it works on the road. This PDK gearbox quickly showed that it works very well, in fact too well. Playing the game of guessing what gear the car is in was very tricky, because under smooth acceleration, you cannot tell when the car is shifting gears, and it works its way up the gearbox very quickly, to give you optimal fuel economy!

While it wants its owners to have fun, it doesn't want that to come at the expense of the environment. As a result, this new 911 can achieve 7.3-litres/100km on the highway, that is better than what I managed with a Mazda MX-5.

So it won't break your bank account when you take it for a drive, nor will it break your back, as this new model rides a lot better than I was expecting.

The roads around Niagara-on-the-Lake are not the smoothest on the planet, but thanks to its electronic dampers, in the comfort setting, this car rides very well.

So, it rides well, gives you great fuel economy, and the gearbox is pretty clever, but a 911 has never really been about those things, it has been the flagship model in Porsche's line-up for 46 years because of performance, so how does the new model perform?

Compared to the out-going model, the only word is better.

For 2009, the 911 has more power. Both the Carrera and Carrera S model get their power gains thanks to direct fuel-injection producing 345hp and 385hp respectively.

You still have the choice of feeding that power to either all-wheels or just rear-wheels. The model I spent most of my time in was a Carrera S, so that is the more powerful one with power going to just the rear-wheels. This set-up in the past could have been a recipe for impending doom, but now thanks to the latest incarnation of PSM (Porsche Stability Management), you need not worry about the car getting away from you, unless you are being really stupid and also being really talentless at the same time.

After spending an hour and a half on the road between me and my co-driver we got back to the base, which was the Niagara District Airport for some lunch, and then for some afternoon activities.

On closed down sections of the runway, we put the car through some exercises. There was the smoothness test, which was so show how smoothly the car changes gear under soft acceleration. While it is impressive to see that, this isn't what I had in mind when it comes to having fun on a runway.

The next bit was a lot more fun, acceleration and braking test. We were encouraged to accelerate as hard as possible and then jam on the brakes as hard as possible. The braking test was simple; get the car to 100km/h and then stand on the brakes. My best test figure was pulling 1.073g under hard braking, which is very impressive for a production car with steel brakes. The acceleration test was even more fun and required engaging this cars new party piece. Yes I am talking about launch control.

To set it up, you activate the “Sport Plus” feature, and disengage “PSM”. Then you push the brake pedal all the way in with your left foot (see, I told you the left foot does eventually come handy) and then mash the accelerator with your right foot, when you hear the beep, it means launch control is ready and then you jump off the brake pedal and hang on. The car works out the level of allowed wheel-spin and just rockets you down the road as quickly as it can. What launch control allows you to do is get performance numbers suggested by the manufacturer every time. Yours truly managed the quickest journalist time of the day, 0-100km/h in 4.62 seconds, in a Carrera 4S, with a passenger on-board.

Unlike in other cars, Porsche lets you play with launch control as many times as you want. If you start abusing the system, the car will simply refuse to let you punish it more and will cut down on engine power until things cool down again.

Next was the handling test around a course of cones. While it was fun to toss the car around, this course was a bit too restrictive for a car like the 911, but more fun was yet to come. At the end of the day, we were given passenger rides around the open sections of the airfield, driven by the professional drivers from the Porsche driving school. These guys then showed us what this new 911 is capable of in the hands of a professional, and trust me, this car has abilities far beyond what an average driver will ever wring out of it.

However, all this controlled testing on an open airfield does not represent how most of these cars will spend their lives.

To see how it is to actually live with, Leo Rubino, sales manager of Downtown Porsche lent me a Carrera S for the weekend. This allowed me to better understand this cars strengths and weaknesses.

For instance, spending the weekend with it allowed me to check out its new touch-screen entertainment system, its ride quality, its real-world fuel-economy and how the gearbox adapts to different traffic situations.

First of all, the updated interior is a great place to spend time in. The quality of the fit and finish is getting better with each new model (by the way, this is still referred as the 997 model), however the age-old problem of the dashboard reflecting on the windshield still exists. If the dash colour is tan, as it was in my test car, the reflections do become much more apparent, the solution, order a black dashboard.

The new entertainment system looks great, but I am not a fan of touch-screen systems because after a few days the screen is full of oily finger marks and they are hard to clean off. Also, the stereo is best left off or played almost silently, because this cabin is not the quietest place to be in. I found it has more road noise than I was expecting, due to the 295/30 ZR19 tires, and even more wind noise at high-speeds than I was expecting. Playing the stereo louder only made things worse as the music sounded boomy, trying to fight against other noises. The solution, turn the stereo off, engage a lower gear and open up the throttle, the noise the engine makes is worth listening to, just don't get carried away, the Police will take your car away if you are caught doing 150km/h on the highway these days, a speed that is all to easy to exceed in the 911.

The PDK gearbox works well in daily commutes, however since it likes working up the gears very quickly to maximize fuel efficiency, I found this creates a lag if you suddenly demand instant acceleration. I also didn't like the way Porsche worked out the steering wheel pedal shifters for the PDK gearbox. First, they have given the up and down feature on both ends of the steering wheel, which I think is confusing, I prefer having up on the right and down on the left, as it is in Ferrari's, Aston Martin's and Jaguars. Also, they got the working wrong, because it asks you to push the pedal with your thumb for gearing up, and pulling it from your fingers to gear down. This is wrong because when you are doing performance driving, as you approach a corner, you are hard on the brakes, and your hand inadvertently presses the up-shift pedal when you actually needed to shift down so you can power out of the corner. The guy from Porsche at the event said that they did this to keep in tradition with the old Tiptronic feature. Tradition is one thing, but when it's wrong it is better to admit it and adopt what's right. I am absolutely sure, if Porsche was to make this change, it will improve this cars driving experience and I am sure none of the old Porsche clientele will be upset.

On a positive note, the fuel economy is actually very impressive. Driven reasonably, it can easily achieve 10-litres/100km on an urban cycle, which is amazing for a car that has 385hp.

Also impressive are the looks. Some say that Porsche has lazy designers and that all newer models look very similar to the one it replaced. The way I see it is that a 911 is a very human car, it ages like we do, we change a bit year after year, but we are essentially the same person. The 911 is like that, only it seems to be aging far better than I am.

To spot the differences between the 2008 and the 2009 model, look for the LED lights in the front, and the rear lights have also been reshaped. Subtle touches I know, but they work.

The pricing has also been reworked and the 911 is more affordable now than I can ever remember, with prices starting at $94,800. The Carrera S model like the one I tested starts at $107,600. That is a bargain compared to offerings from Audi, Aston Martin and Maserati.

Yes the new 911 isn't perfect, but neither are humans, perhaps that is why it is still very much loved by sports car enthusiasts. For 2009, there are now a few extra things to be enthusiastic for. Long live Porsche. Long live the 911.
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